A life on the front lines

A son retells his father's Memories of Afghanistan

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Keith Anwar has never set foot in Afghanistan, but he has "interest and emotion wrapped up in it," he says, because of his family's history. He also has a piece of it to share?#34;a century's worth of history told by his father, Afghanistan native Mohammed "Hammad" Haider Anwar?#34;in a memoir first published more than 20 years ago.

Anwar, an Oak Park resident, recently reedited his father's book, Memories of Afghanistan, and added an afterward sharply critical of the United States' role in "strengthening Islamic fundamentalism and tribal backwardness in Afghanistan over the past 25 years." He decided to republish it now in part to pay a debt to his father, but also because "it's a story different from what anyone else is telling, and one that just has to be told," he says.

One of the poorest countries in the world, "Afghanistan has been a country between the trenches, a wasteland first between competing imperialist powers and then between the Soviets and capitalism," says Anwar.

The United States, following Britain before it, has consistently landed on the wrong side of reform for the people of Afghanistan, he explains. It served first British and then American interests to support the brutal rule of Islamic fundamentalists. And we're paying for it today.

Anwar, who's lived with his wife and children in Oak Park for the past eight years, comes at this with a non-mainstream world view. He's been a Trotskyist since his college days in the 1970s, he explains, driven by "a gut level desire to see oppression eliminated." His father, though, was an "iconoclast," a scientist with no particular political ax to grind.

Sharing memories

At age 5, Hammad was witness to an early attempt at reform. In the first part of the last century, Afghanistan was "under the thumb of the British," explains Anwar. In 1919, King Amanullah declared his country's independence. One of Hammad's earliest memories is of the British bombing the slums of Kabul, where he lived. For the next 10 years, the king instituted a series of reforms, including opening schools to girls and freeing women from the veil.

In 1929, the British fostered a tribal uprising. Islamic clergy took control of the country and held it, in one form or another, for the next 50 years.

"My father saw all of this. At age 14 or 15 he took up arms to defend the king and fight the tribalists," says Anwar. When the tribalists succeeded, they pillaged Kabul, and Hammad fled to safety in his mother's village. A friend of his uncle's introduced him to Thomas Paine's Common Sense and he became, he wrote later, "an uncompromising foe of monarchy and the priesthood." He also became interested in the United States.

There were "tragic and traumatic events" from these years that haunted Hammad, writes his son in the book's preface. A beloved religion teacher is stoned to death for heresy while Hammad watches, a close friend is shot. There are daily executions of political prisoners.

A "pretty smart guy" according to his son, Hammad managed to finish his secondary education at the top of his class, score extremely high on a final exam, and qualify for college abroad. One of only a handful of Afghan boys picked to leave, he was sent to the United States, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Columbia University and a Ph.D. in biochemistry at John's Hopkins University. He also met and married Keith's mother, Phyllis Anwar.

Hammad, with his American wife, returned to Kabul in 1941.

"There was never a question in his mind that he'd go back," says Anwar. "My father was a nationalist. He had a lucrative job offer here, but he turned it down. He wasn't concerned with feathering his nest."

In Afghanistan, Hammad directed the teacher training schools, was an advisor in the Ministry of Education, and taught chemistry in what would become Kabul University. Phyllis taught in the country's only girl's school and scandalized the authorities by refusing to wear a veil.

Eventually, Hammad was called to the prime minister, who accused him of teaching communist ideas to his students. "'I have talked of democracy and freedom to them,'" was Hammad's reply. The prime minister ordered him to make Phyllis wear the veil. He refused.

The couple fled Afghanistan in 1944, Hammad first for a supposed medical emergency, and Phyllis several weeks later and with great difficulty. Anwar is at work on a novel about his mother's experiences in Kabul, including her escape.

Growing up American

Anwar grew up in New York, where his father ended up working for Pepsi. He entered Brandeis University in 1970, promptly joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and became a Trotskyist. His mother, he learned later, had joined a Communist Party youth group during her own college years.

In 1982, Hammad returned to Afghanistan. The Soviet-backed Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan was in power and Hammad found Kabul relatively peaceful, recalls Anwar. "No veil, women got employment, education on a massive scale, even military training."

By 1992, the "mujahadeen," Islamic fundamentalists?#34;with money and weapons from the CIA, among others--had overthrown the PDPA. Horrible violence followed, says Anwar, adding that the Talaban were next.

"Life was so bad under the mujahadeen that the people were willing to accept anything. The Talaban were horrific criminals, but even they weren't capable of approaching the terror from the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan," he says.

What would Hammad, who died in 1993, think of the situation in Afghanistan today? "He would be appalled," says his son.

Memories of Afghanistan should be available in local bookstores this month. It's also for sale through the Internet at www.authorhouse.com.

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